Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Contrasting muskie and pike fisheries

Casey McCormick, of the Boundary Waters Muskie Club, caught and released this nice 46.5-inch muskie during the cold weather bite period in late October 2020. (BWMC photo)

By Bill Ziegler

Contributing Writer

 

Muskie (Esox masquinongy) and northern pike (Esox lucius) are closely related, separate species of the same genus. They’re related closely enough to be able to (occasionally) naturally reproduce a hybrid: the tiger muskie. Pike and muskie, however, differ in many ways that greatly affects their fisheries. Pike, other than very large pike, are relatively easy to catch and strike at live bait or appropriate lures regularly. Many anglers targeting other game fish catch pike incidentally on a wide array of lures and baited walleye jigs. Muskie on the other hand, are known to be very difficult to rise for a strike. 

Muskies

One of the most significant reasons it’s harder to catch a muskie versus many other Michigan game fish is their low populations density. An average muskie population in the lake states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) is 0.3 muskie per acre or one muskie for every three surface acres of water. Game fish populations vary from lake to lake, although in northern Michigan a pike, walleye, or bass population of five per acre is normal. Pike and walleye can exceed five adults per acre in good habitat hence an angler targeting game fish other than muskies has a better chance of catching their targeted species. 

 

Another behavioral factor muskies exhibit that affects their catchability is that they will often not attack an appropriately sized live bait, even though they had not eaten recently. I observed this in aquarium studies over the years while working as a fisheries biologist for the Michigan DNR. In an aquarium, pike, bass and other game fish that have not eaten recently would almost always eat an appropriately sized prey fish soon after it was introduced into the tank. In the case of muskies they would often not eat in th

e same situation, and in many cases would leave the prey alone for days. 

 

All game fish sometimes follow a bait without striking, but muskies are well known for their “curiosity” about potential prey, which is one of their greatest vulnerabilities (spearing). This curiosity is why muskie angling experts emphasize anglers completing their lure retrieve with the figure-eight move. Muskies will often follow a bait to investigate it, then break off to return to their holding spot. 

 

My fishing partners and I have observed muskies closely following (just under the sucker and slightly to the rear) a live sucker rig being slowly “trolled” through the water for up to half an hour. 

 

Fisheries research in Wisconsin found that most of their trophy muskies were 15 years old, or older. This fact makes high minimum size limits (MSL), low bag limits, closed spawning season, fishing method restrictions, and catch and release necessary to maintain a muskie fishery with a large size structure and good numbers of quality sized fish. 

 

Of course, all waters do not have the same potential to produce larger numbers of “trophy” muskies. Waters with a strong forage base and quality muskie habitat are the waters where muskie populations with the largest size structure will be found. 

Northern pike

In northern Michigan high MSLs have not produced many “trophy” northern pike in inland waters. Inland pike need ideal habitat and an excellent forage base to produce a significant number of quality-sized pike. Only a few northern Michigan inland waters have a strong forage base of soft-rayed fish, adequate spawning habitat (but not too much), ample cold, oxygenated deeper waters in the summer, and good genetics to produce a significant number of quality-sized fish. 

 

Northern pike populations typically have a much higher natural mortality rate than muskies, and stockpiling larger fish is not common. Female pike need to grow to large size before they can use their preferred forage, most commonly suckers. If pike don’t grow quickly, they will likely not live long enough to grow to even “legal” (24-inch MSL) let alone trophy size. 

 

A pike’s normal life span, even with fishing restrictions, is much shorter than muskie’s, with normal protective regulations. If muskies have reasonable protections, their normal growth pattern is what results in a larger relative abundance of quality-size muskie. A MSL of 24 inches on pike typically results in a high extraction rate on these faster-growing female fish that bite readily. Anglers focus on the fast-growing female fish since the smaller males cannot be legally kept by anglers. In many cases the faster-growing female pike are cropped out of the population, limiting greatly the number of pike with the potential to grow to quality size

Similarities

Muskies and pike are very similar in their preferred prey fish. The overwhelming number of studies reveal they both prefer soft-rayed fish species like suckers, lake herring/cisco, whitefish, and minnows. Unfortunately, some anglers get the wrong impression of both muskie and pike prey. This happens when a very active feeding muskie or pike attacks a bass, walleye, or panfish that is fighting and thrashing as an angler reels it in. 

 

These events are widely repeated, leading anglers to draw the wrong conclusion on preferred muskie and pike prey. Of course, in the absence of their preferred soft-rayed prey (suckers are common in most northern Michigan lakes), pike and muskie will prey on spiny-rayed fish like perch, small bass, and even walleyes. 

 

Muskies can eat a forage fish that is about one-fifth to one-quarter their own size, although many suckers attain a size where they are too big to be eaten by northern pike. 

 

Although muskies are often in a negative feeding mode, when they become active to feed they can be very persistent with their attacks on a bait. One trick experienced muskie angler, Floyd Dropps, of Crystal Falls, Mich., showed me is, if a muskie fails to hook up after attacking a live bait, the angler should get it back in the water quickly (even if the muskie likely felt a hook). We’ve landed a number of muskies that we missed on the first hook-set attempt. In a few cases, once that active fish decided to feed, we hooked it after several failed attempts to set the quick strike rig. It is possible to catch a pike on a second attempt, although I can not say I’ve had much luck hooking pike after they “feel the hooks.”

 

Pike and muskie differ considerably in their natural reproduction and potential for self-sustaining fisheries. In northern Michigan it’s common in waters with good pike spawning habitat for them to become overpopulated, due to very high natural reproductive success. The result in inland waters with overpopulated pike is a slow growth rate and a poor size structure. 

 

Muskies on the other hand, typically have limited natural reproductive success and recruitment to the population. This is the case even with adequate muskie spawning habitat. This results in the significantly lower normal muskie population, and typically results in good growth rates with adequate forage.

 

Natural reproduction problems are more likely to develop in inland waters requiring stocking of muskie fingerlings, to maintain the fishery. 

 

Fisheries research by Jim Diana at the University of Michigan demonstrated a decline in reproductive success of muskie in lakes with high shoreline development due to degraded natural muskie spawning habitat. Biologists in both Michigan and Wisconsin have found in the southern regions of both states that developed shorelines also have resulted in less adequate pike spawning habitat. This results in lower pike populations, although the upside is faster growth rates of remaining pike.

 

Pike and muskies can often be found in the same waters, especially in northern Michigan. Some anglers misidentify small muskies as northern pike, and keep sublegal-sized muskie. This can be avoided by consulting Michigan Fishing Guide booklet. Muskies can be found in Michigan with either a barred green pattern (sometimes mistaken for tiger muskie), a flat green/olive color or green spots on a white back ground. The rule of thumb that works best is muskies have green on a white background and pike have white spots on a green background. 

 

Benji Wood, vice president of the Boundary Waters Muskie Club (U.P. and Wisconsin), says the best months to fish muskies is “June and then again in September through November and freeze up.”

 

Pike are active in the cool water period following the opener (last Saturday in April in the northern Lower and May 15 in the U.P.). As the inland lakes and reservoirs warm most adult pike retreat to colder, oxygenated, deeper waters provided that habitat is available. The adult pike are hard to access by anglers during this warm water summer period in the inland waters of Michigan. 

 

That’s why ice fishing is the best time to put your baits in front of active feeding pike.

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